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Select Committee Starts Inquiry into UK Superfast Broadband Strategy

Tuesday, Jul 28th, 2015 (1:28 pm) - Score 824

A House of Commons Select Committee for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched yet another inquiry into the national Broadband Delivery UK programme, which will focus on the coverage, delivery and speed of superfast broadband and mobile connectivity across the UK.

At present the existing Broadband Delivery UK programme and related projects aim to make fixed line “super-fast broadband” (24Mbps+) services available to 90% of premises by 2016 (Phase 1), as well as 95% by 2017 (Phase 2); this rises to 99% by 2018 when you include mobile and other fixed wireless solutions. So far this has involved a total public investment of around £1.7bn.

On top of that several related schemes are also working to improve the coverage of mobile networks, which include last year’s £5bn agreement that will see all four of the main Mobile Network Operators (O2, EE, Three UK and Vodafone) extend their geographic network coverage (voice and text) from 80% today to 90% by 2017; although data services (3G and 4G) will only be pushed to 85%. On top of that 4G population coverage is also expected to reach 98% within the next year.

Jesse Norman, Select Committee Chairman, said:

Proper digital connectivity is key both to the well-being of many communities and to Britain’s economic future. Yet many people and businesses are unable to receive the digital access and services they need. This inquiry is designed to find out exactly why that is, and how to fix it.”

As such the new inquiry – ‘Establishing world-class connectivity throughout the UK‘ – will look at both the progress of the existing programmes / agreements and what needs to be done in order to connect the most remote areas (i.e. those within the final 5% – approx. 1.5 million premises). The Committee is thus seeking responses to the following questions.

Broadband Inquiry – Written Evidence Questions

* What role should Government, Ofcom and industry play in extending superfast broadband to hard-to-reach premises?

* Is there sufficient competition in these markets? If not, how can any market failures best be addressed given the investments already made?

* What are the commercial, financial and technical challenges the programme faces in reaching the final 5%? What technologies exist to overcome them? What investment is required, by whom and for what return?

* Given that in practice a Universal Service Obligation could not capture 100% of households, what should a USO for broadband look like?

* What are other countries doing to reach ‘not-spots’? How affordable are their solutions?

* Should Government be investing more in research and development into finding innovative solutions to meet the communication needs of remote communities?

* Are BT and other communication companies investing sufficiently themselves in reaching these groups?

* What investment and progress are the mobile network operators making in improving mobile coverage across the UK and enabling a swifter process when users choose to change provider? How could these best be improved?

* How have the existing Government broadband programmes been delivered?

Broadly speaking the Government’s first 90% target for superfast broadband coverage, which is almost exclusively working with BT based contracts and the related deployment of ‘up to’ 80Mbps FTTC and some small patches of 330Mbps capable FTTP, appears to be making reasonable progress and seems likely to hit its target.

But going from 90% to 95% is already proving to me more complicated, which is highlighted by the recent rejection of BT’s bid for a related contract in Devon and Somerset (here). The climate of increased austerity (funding cuts) has made life very difficult for Local Authorities, some of which are clearly struggling to find the necessary investment and that will only get harder.

Tackling the Final 5% (Universal Coverage)

It’s well understood that connecting those in the final 5% will be an extremely expensive task, which is one of the reasons why BDUK has been running seven Market Test Pilots with different solutions (fixed wireless, satellite and fibre optic etc.) in order to help identify the best options for connecting remote areas.

The pilots are important because the situation in some local authorities clearly shows that we shouldn’t just be relying upon BT to pick up all the contracts, which will naturally only be commercially interested in those areas that can deliver a return. As such we think that alternative network providers need to be given much more consideration. We have seen some examples of this, such as with several Gigaclear contracts, but Phase 3 may have to go further.

On top of that the Government are also mooting the prospect of raising the current Universal Service Obligation (USO) on BT and KC, which upon request requires them to install a phone service that’s capable of supporting slow dial-up Internet speeds, to broadband capable of at least 5Mbps (Megabits per second); this could be challenging to deliver in some areas.

Never the less the Government’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, has promised to make it “absolutely clear” where superfast broadband will be delivered in the future and he intends to publish a plan for reaching the final 5% “before the end of the year” (here). But one report suggests that £500m may be needed to achieve such a goal (final 5%) and this could potentially be funded by a new TAX on broadband ISPs (here), which is unlikely to be very popular.

The deadline for written submissions to the cross-party inquiry is Wednesday 30th September 2015.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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